Behind the scenes
Making popular science shows
Popular science has become incredibly big business (Mythbusters, Engineering Connections, Scrapheap Challenge, Bang Goes The Theory, Brainiac etc.) and many production companies would like to replicate these returnable success stories.
I’m frequently asked to develop or produce in this area and there’s normally one sticking point – the hands on science. Demos, stunts, ‘builds’, working props or experiments, call it want you want, this content is tough to get right and even tougher to do on a budget. After all, you aren't filming something happening - you're making the thing you are then filming. It's expensive.
Despite the difficulties, this kind of content is worth persisting with because it’s ‘showing not telling’ - it injects a lot of energy into your show. It’s expected by commissioners and it’s very popular with the audience. It’s also potentially viral, which can really add brand value.
From my experience very few production managers have a realistic idea of what demos, stunts etc. cost or the time it takes to develop and implement them. There are two basic approaches – in house or out of house.
Out of house is probably the way most production companies would approach a demo or stunt or working prop. Phone an SFX house like Asylum, Machine Shop etc and you’ll get access to some great kit, good health and safety, smart thinkers and brilliant engineers – a one stop shop. Potentially this is the least stressful way of producing ‘kinetic content’, but I’ve always found it a double edged sword.
If you don’t want something that’s been seen a thousand times before, you’re asking the SFX house to work out a methodology from scratch. In effect they’ll have researched, prototyped and trialed the stunt or demo many times before they come onto your set. This is expensive.
Research and development time should mean it’s a reliable effect (though often it isn’t, or is less effective than you’d hoped). What it definitely means is that it’s going to cost you a lot of money, often way more than you originally agreed. You’ll also have less control over exactly what’s built and less control over how X integrates with the rest of your editorial content.
Personally, I find SFX houses are great for replicating standard effects (air cannons blowing cars over, rain, explosions, wind etc.) and pretty bad at producing reliable new effects (like this Vortex Cannon) or first principle science demos on TV money.
This isn’t always their fault – your limited budget means limited research and development – you just can’t afford weeks of their technician thinking at £350 a day. The big risk of course is the effect is watered down, or isn’t reliable on the day. A ‘damp squid’ event is galling for everyone and can risk reputations. I would avoid SFX houses for multiple ‘builds’ across a series; it’ll just end up costing you too much money and you’ll end up compromising too much.
If you’re going to go the SFX house route, clearly state what you want and the total all in cost you are prepared to spend. Always check in on the trials process – you may head off a problem early. I would encourage the use of penalty clauses in contracts making clear you will claw back money for effects or demos which don’t work, or don’t work reliably, costing you money and time. If you’re paying a lot of money, you should expect a working effect, not a list of excuses or an attempt to ‘blind you with science’.
The alternative is to take your research and development, prop building, demo or stunt in house. The advantage is the close relationship the editorial team can have with the engineers and the cost saving, especially over a series which requires a lot of physical events.
In effect I hire the people who SFX firms hire, cutting out the middleman. I work very closely (sometimes alongside) the engineers. I know what I’m getting and what I’m not. If things aren’t working for whatever reason, I know straight away and am nimble enough to cut my losses or adapt the plan. There are no surprises for the Series Producer or Exec, which is generally better for stress levels.
You can expect to pay £280 to £400 per day for an SFX guy. I can hire good, talented prop builders / effects people for around £800 to £1000 per week. I find committed people who live for the job and who are prepared to go the extra mile to get it done, without mentioning overtime.
The downside to this approach is that it’s a lot more work. You have to find experts in the field (swapping a bottle of single malt for a couple of days of advice) find the labour, control expectations from above and explain to the PM why x costs y while they look on in disbelief. You’ll also have to sort the workshop, tools, source materials, be sure of the H and S and you’ll have way more responsibility for the effect on shoot day.
Not everyone wants to go this route! But it’s worth it in the end. You can achieve things which are research heavy, world firsts, or large scale, on a budget that an SFX firm could never work to. A recent job was a ‘fire extinguisher go kart’ which hit a top speed of 43mph – a world record.
We researched, built and shot the item for £7500. Out of interest I got quotes from well known London special effects companies to build the same machine. One came in at £15,000 and the other at £12,000. Those prices came with no guarantees that we could hit the speed we wanted to and didn’t include filming.
In summary if you want unique, like HD video back from Space (for a grand!), a 200mph toffee powered rocket, the Titanic’s hull rebuilt, or just dozens of small ‘first principles’ science props, go in house, or talk to a ‘normal’ engineering firm. You’ll save money. I can put you in touch with some helpful people.
For a standard effect like rain or an explosion, or if you simply have ‘film money’ for them to spend on getting a big demo right, go to an SFX company - save yourself the grey hairs!
Nick Watson 2011